I have the good fortune to work for the world’s largest creator of Open-Source software. Big companies being what they are, this means that There Is A Process. Recently, I went through it, and I thought the story might be of mild interest to those who are trying to figure out how to make a living at the intersection of the profit motive and OSS culture.
What happened was that after getting an Atom-Protocol paper accepted at OSCON 2006, I decided that I had to have some actual code to show, so I whipped up a quickie called the Atom Protocol Exerciser, APE for short, and I’ve been whittling away at it ever since. I thought “I should release this, someone might find it useful” and there I was on the slippery slope.
When I first dropped by the internal Sun Open Source Review page, my heart sank, and I snarled away in IM at Simon Phipps, saying “this thing is designed to discourage,” but he was gentle and open-minded, and I’ve decided that while the process isn’t perfect, it isn’t about discouraging you, it just wants you to prove that you’re serious. Given the number of OSS projects eagerly announced and then left to moulder on SourceForge or equivalent, I suspect this is probably a good thing.
My experience is specific to something that’s not going to become a Sun product and is going out with a vanilla OSS license (MIT in the Ape’s case; less is more). I expect the experience would be different for a product that we’re going to ship and support, which is entirely appropriate.
The process is all automated through a set of Web forms that are integrated with internal email; it even tracks how much time you’ve spent waiting for various levels of approval. It ain’t pretty but it seems to sort of work.
There are a bunch of steps. You have to get approval from your own management chain up to the nearest Vice-President. Along the way, you need sign-off from Brand Management, Trademark Legal, and International Trade Legal (export-control regulations are a cross big companies like Sun have to bear). Once that’s done, OSS Supremo Simon Phipps has to sign off, as well as our designated Open Source Legal Heavy. There’s a bunch of extra work if patent applications are involved, which fortunately I didn’t have to go near.
You have to provide a lot of information about your project, what it does, where it’ll live, why it’s worth doing, and so on. This seems fair to me.
The one that was the most work was the Trademark piece. You just can’t assert “I’ll call this Foobar” and publish the code; lots of good names are taken and if you work for a public company, you really don’t want to accidentally step on someone else’s trademark with your coolio project name because if you do, they’re gonna call their attorneys first thing.
I actually wanted the trademark people to check out both “Atom Protocol Exerciser” and “Ape”; they told me in the politest possible way that this costs real money and real time so would I please bloody well pick one; fair enough.
I reported a couple of what I consider bugs in the process, where you can end up waiting for approval without knowing who exactly you’re waiting for. On the other hand, when a couple of them stretched out, general complaints in the direction of That Department unjammed them pretty quick.
Checking out names takes time—a couple of weeks in my case—that’s just a fact of life. Aside from that, the process pretty well moved right along, occasionally requiring me to snarl politely at someone “Having a problem with my OSS application?”
In fact the Ape could have been approved for publication last September, only when it washed up on the nearest VP’s desk (that would be Laurie Tolson, my manager at the time) I was real busy with something else and forgot about it; I’m sure if I’d sent a one-line email along the lines of “Hey Laurie, can you approve my OSS release already?” she would have. As it happens, she cleared it before I got around to bugging her. That aside, the whole process would have taken about 21 days.
Seems about OK to me.